It was announced in August that Melbourne’s iconic Astor Theatre will be closing its doors in early 2015. Jade Bate explores the importance and magic of single screen cinemas in Australia.
It’s a Saturday night in mid-July. Film fans from all walks of life are lining out the door of St. Kilda’s Astor Theatre to buy a ticket for tonight’s screening, a double bill of two of Audrey Hepburn’s most beloved films, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Roman Holiday. The crowd is buzzing with excitement as the lights dim and the screen bursts into life. It’s an incredible sight to see so many people choosing to spend their Saturday night watching two films that were released more than 50 years ago.
The majestic Astor theatre has been a part of Melbournian culture since its opening in 1936. As one of Australia’s last standing single screen cinemas, stepping through its doors is like entering a time warp back to the golden age of film, when movie going experiences really were experiences and not just something to fill the time with. From cult classics, to neo noir, to sweeping epics, and small indie comedies, it seems like every movie found a home in the Astor theatre.
With its humming neon sign and exquisite art deco interior, the theatre is nothing less than a Melbourne icon. But sadly, after operating for almost 80 years as a cinema showing double bills of both classics and new features, it was recently announced that the Astor would draw its final curtain in 2015.
The tragic news of the Astor’s closure came to light in late August. The theatre will not have its lease renewed and therefore will be shutting down operations as a cinema in May next year. The building is of course Victorian heritage listed, so therefore the building’s exterior – including its iconic neon sign – will remain the same. But its existence as a movie theatre in its current form will most likely not continue. However, with a legion of supporters behind the cause, including citizen campaigns on social media platforms, there is still hope for this iconic Melbourne institution.
The cause behind the Astor’s impending closure is a simple leasing dispute between the Astor’s operator, George Florence, and the building’s owner, Ralph Taranto of Ralamar Nominees Pty Ltd. According to The Guardian, a 10-year leasing contract was offered to Florence, who thought it too long and declined. Taranto bought the building from St. Michael’s Grammar in 2012, which ceased the school’s original plans of transforming the theatre into a multi-use performing arts complex. Back then, both Taranto and Florence were confident they could maintain a relationship that, according to the Astor’s website, would “build a long and prosperous future” for the Astor.
But now that all seems like a distance past, with neither party knowing what will happen to the iconic theatre.
In an announcement on its website, the Astor claims they are in the dark about the theatre’s fate stating, “we do not know what the landlord has planned for the future of the building, only that we are not included in those plans.” However, a spokesperson for Mr. Taranto told The Age, “we’re not saying goodbye to the theatre – we’re keeping it as it is.”
But this seems not enough for fans of the Astor. Some have started a Facebook page entitled, ‘If The Astor is evicted, I won’t support any business that moves in’, which urges supporters to boycott any future owners or operators of the theatre. One of the supporters, Ted Sariklis, has also started a petition on change.org asking people to send a message to the building’s landlords, Ralamar Nominees Pty Ltd, not to close the theatre down. The petition currently has over 5,000 signatures.
However, it seems like much of the initial panic surrounding the Astor’s closure was unnecessary. Friends Of The Astor (FOTA) President, Vanda Hamilton, claims her association is “currently working towards a solution to this problem”. On the FOTA Facebook page, she urged people “not to direct venom at the building’s owner” and says the group “hopes to go public soon with some plans”. Nevertheless, no proposals have been verbalised and future plans for the theatre are still unknown.
But it’s not just fans who are mourning the loss of the Astor; academics and filmmakers such as documentarian Mark Poole, are also lamenting its demise. “Independent cinemas like The Astor play an incredibly important role,” says the RMIT University lecturer. “They allow audiences to find and discover films that they wouldn’t be able to see on the big screen anywhere else.” Poole’s viewpoint as a professional filmmaker is that independent movie theatres play an essential part in supporting emerging Australian artists. He says, the “local film sector needs small independent cinemas as well as the large chains and multiplexes” to nurture and improve an “appreciation of films and filmmaking”.
However, in echoing the sentiments of FOTA President Vanda Hamilton, film academic and head of Australian Cinema Studies at RMIT, Dr. Steve Gauson, claims that the panic surrounding the demise of the Astor “has been tremendously misreported”. According to Dr. Gauson, the theatre “is not shutting down, nor will it cease to exist as an active cinema”. Taranto is planning to transform it into a multi-screen venue, but it is “not quite the travesty” that is being broadcasted by its current staff and Florence.
Gaunson also questions what exactly is being preserved if the Astor was to proceed in its current format. He suggests that perhaps the “indulgent and kitsch beauty” of the theatre in its current form is outdated, and rather than harking back to a forgotten time period, it needs to keep up with the times. Maybe it’s not the cinemagoers of Melbourne who needs to change, but rather the Astor theatre needs to accommodate with the needs of modern cinemagoers. But for now it seems inarguable that the loss of the Astor is also a loss to Melbourne and its film industry as a whole.
It would be an understatement to call the Astor’s closure a tragedy. As Melbourne’s final standing single screen cinema, losing the Astor would be like losing a whole generation.
Single screen cinemas have been a traditional part of Australian film culture since film – as a favoured form of entertainment – exploded in popularity in the early 1900s. The popularity of film allowed the Australian cinema industry to flourish during the 1920s and 1930s with most of the country’s single screen cinemas being built during this time.
Before the invention of television, cinemas were the only means of exhibition for a film, so their success at the theatre was crucially important in financing the Australian film industry. Single screen cinemas were the most common form of picture theatre between the 1920s and 1960s. Each had their own character and exhibited an array of new and old features, often a double bill with a popular film shown first and a lesser known film shown second. But with the growth of the “blockbuster” in the late 1970s, a new form of cinema emerged which allowed multiple films to be shown at the same time. The multiplex changed the cinema going experience and killed off the kitschy charm of single screen cinemas. Cinema going was once an event and the Astor is Melbourne’s last artifact from that time.
It’s a Thursday night in October, two months after the announcement of the theatre’s closure. Tonight the double bill is two Quentin Tarantino movies, Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown; it’s the final time either of these films will be shown at the Astor. The mood is perhaps more solemn now with the end of the Astor nigh. But people are still in high spirits as the blood, gore and carnage from these two gritty cult movies splatters across the screen. Just like the use of homages in Tarantino’s movies, the Astor is a love letter to the movie theatre, and hopefully, it will remain that way for a long time to come.
See the Astor’s latest calendar here.
Sign the petition to save the Astor here.
This article was written as part of the Advance Print Reporting course at RMIT University.